Returning Starters: Offense - 6 Defense - 3
2013 Record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
Coach: Gary Andersen, 2nd year
While their record doesn't show it, the Badgers put together a historic 2013 season. Wisconsin was the only team in the nation with two 1,000-yard rushers (Melvin Gordon and James White) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Jared Abbrederis). The Badgers broke school records in yards per game (480.8), yards per carry (6.62), rushing yards (3,689) and passing attempts (355). And on defense they ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense (16.3 ppg), total defense (305.1 ypg) and rushing yards allowed per game (102.54).
Despite superb production on both sides of the ball, the Badgers failed to make the Rose Bowl for the first time in three seasons. After dropping close games at Arizona State and at Ohio State early in the year, Wisconsin rattled off six straight wins. But the Badgers lost their last two games—to Penn State in the regular season finale and to No. 8 South Carolina in the Capitol One Bowl—and finished the season ranked 22 in the country.
Running back Melvin Gordon is primed for a career year. Four fifths of the offensive line returns and Gordon, a redshirt junior, has a real shot at becoming the first running back to win the Heisman since Mark Ingram did it in 2009. But who will hand him the ball? The favorite is junior Joel Stave, who was inconsistent as the starter last season. Stave is competing with Tanner McEvoy for the starting job. The winner will have to cope with a mediocre receiving corps; the graduation of Abbrederis—now with the Packers—leaves a huge void. Whether it's Stave or McEvoy who starts, one thing's for certain: play-action will be his best friend.
In their first year running a 3-4 scheme, the Badgers had one of the best rushing defenses in the nation, finishing fifth in rushing yards allowed per contest (102.5) in 2013. But they only return one starter from last year's front seven. Gone are veterans Brendan Kelly, Beau Allen and Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland. The Badgers should be adequate against the pass—they return three secondary starters—but stopping the run will be the D's toughest challenge.
Three Players to Know
Melvin Gordon, RB -Explosive. That's the media's favorite adjective to describe running back Melvin Gordon. Come December, the descriptor of choice could be Heisman Trophy winner. (Bovada puts his odds at 16/1.) Last season Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on a nation-high 7.8 yards per attempt. 7.8! Wisconsin will lean even more on the 6-foot-1, 213-pound junior now that White and Abbrederis are in the NFL.
Joel Stave, QB -The incumbent starter is the front-runner to win back the job. Last season he was a bit erratic, and threw for 2,494 yards (6th in Big Ten), 22 touchdowns (T-2) and 13 interceptions (T-8). Last month Stave was named one of the 39 players on the Davey O'Brien Award Watch List, so the expectations are there. He won't get much help from a lackluster receiving corps, but Stave has the potential to turn some heads. He just needs to be more consistent.
Warren Herring, NG - At 293 pounds, Herring is a natural nose guard who can also slide to defensive end. Last season Herring brought versatility and speed (for his size) off the bench to tally four sacks and six tackles for loss. This year the pressure is on the senior to not only make plays, but also anchor an inexperienced front seven.
Despite a precarious passing attack and an unproven defense, Wisconsin is still the consensus favorite to win the West. The Badgers face a forgiving schedule—LSU, at Northwestern and at Iowa are their only tests. Last season Wisconsin romped Northwestern 35-6 in Madison. But this year is different—the Cats should play UW much closer. The Badgers may be in everyone's preseason Top 25 rankings, but they are vulnerable. Northwestern is the more veteran squad this time around and the game is at Ryan Field, where Wisconsin hasn't won since 1999. Upset alert.